One frantic hour: the race to save the Koori Mail from rapidly rising flood waters

·4-min read

When Lismore’s river burst its banks, the Indigenous newspaper was hit hard. With printing paused, its staff are still finding ways to serve the community

It was midnight, hours before the floods hit Lismore, and Naomi Moran was in the Koori Mail’s office, working frantically to save an Indigenous institution.

The newspaper’s three-storey building, perched perilously close to the swelling Wilsons River, was expected to be flooded, just as it was in 2017.

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The general manager, Moran, and her team had followed the advice of emergency services to the letter, moving important documents above the then-predicted flood levels.

But at midnight, when the true scale of the impending disaster became apparent, Moran, her husband and several friends realised it was not going to be enough.

They made a mad dash to the office and were left with just an hour to get all of the newspaper’s computers, hard drives and servers to the third floor.

“What was precious to us was what’s on those computers because that’s all our page layouts, basically everything that we need to print a paper,” Moran, a Dunghutti and Nyangbal/Arakwal woman of the Bundjalung nation, tells Guardian Australia.

If the third floor were lost, she says, the Koori Mail would be wiped out for up to a year.

That would have dealt a devastating financial blow to Australia’s only fully Indigenous-owned and -managed newspaper, which returns its profits to Aboriginal communities.

“I just remember Monday, just monitoring all the reports, trying to see snippets of buildings from helicopter footage on the news to see if we could see the Koori Mail building,” she says. “Just that anxiety around ‘did it get to that third floor?’, that’s all that I was worried about.”

It wasn’t until Tuesday that Moran saw the images.

The building was hit hard. The first and second floors were both destroyed. The paper’s print archive was among the areas wiped out.

“Every single edition in paper printed by the Koori Mail in the last 30 years – completely gone,” Moran says. “There was a $20,000 Albert Namatjira original – probably worth more – floating around there. Just gone.”

Thankfully, the third floor was spared.

But the damage is such that, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Koori Mail has been forced to temporarily stop publishing. Each issue that doesn’t go to print costs it between $60,000 to $100,000, Moran says.

People are going through the most traumatic time in their lives, and a pair of gumboots and a spray bottle is not going to cut it

Naomi Moran

“Thirty years of Koori Mail being the voice of Indigenous Australia and all of a sudden that voice stops,” she says. “It’s obviously affected us as a business and a product as a newspaper, but it’s obviously affecting our readers around the nation that rely on us as a source of information and storytelling, that’s our cultural responsibility and for that to be taken away from us in that way is really tragic.”

While the paper gets back on its feet, its staff have found other ways to serve their region.

Koori Mail employees quickly organised food and supply drops to nearby Indigenous communities – including around Muli Muli and Tabulam – which lost road access to major population centres.

From their underground storage area, the team also set up what they’ve dubbed the “Koori Coles”, a flood relief centre open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike.

“It’s not just about your groceries and your cleaning products, your bedding and your clothes, it’s a holistic approach to what the community needs. We’ve got a medical team here, we’ve got health and wellbeing, we’ve got massage therapists and people doing body work.”

“People are going through the most traumatic time in their lives, and a pair of gumboots and a spray bottle is not going to cut it.”

Many of the paper’s staff are working and volunteering at a time of immense personal loss.

The acting editor, Darren Coyne, lost his home and had to be rescued during the floods. Now he’s now working furiously to get the paper back on track.

They hope to resume printing resume in April.

“For the first time in history, even though we are 100% self-funded, we need people to hold our hand during this process,” Moran says. “Hold our hand, support where possible, whether it’s contributing to the Koori Mail rebuild fund, taking a bit of pressure off, and making sure we can rebuild our office.”

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